Education

Law students object to proposal to bar UNC's pro bono legal work

Posted March 2, 2017 7:08 p.m. EST
Updated March 3, 2017 8:51 a.m. EST

— Students of the University of North Carolina School of Law protested Thursday against one of their own alumni who wants to shut down the school's pro bono legal center.

Joe Knott, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, has introduced a proposal that would prevent the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which helps people who could not otherwise afford legal assistance, from participating in any litigation or providing legal counsel.

"In my opinion, filing lawsuits and public interest litigation is not part of our core academic mission," Knott said. "Our academic mission is the best thing we can do for the state of North Carolina."

More than 100 people, including many alumni and faculty members, wrote to the Board of Governors to express their concerns about the proposal, and students filled the board room to denounce it.

"Part of what the UNC school system speaks toward ... is this focus on public service, and so, what the UNC Center for Civil Rights does is make sure that there’s service to the public, to North Carolina’s communities," said Quisha Mallette, a third-year law student. "It was clear in this meeting today that would be at risk."

"The work that they do is so unique. There are not very many organizations who can take that on. There’s going to be a lot missing," said Hillary Li, another third-year law student, who said she would feel "absolutely horrible" to tell low-income people that she isn't allowed to help them.

Elizabeth Haddix, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Civil Rights, said the center receives no taxpayer funds and serves a critical need.

"Where local governments are implementing policies or practices that systematically discriminate against people on the basis of their race ... (representing people) is upholding the public mission of this university," Haddix said.

Mallette said she is learning from her work with the center.

"Part of what law schools have tried to do in recent years is stray away from just having students stay in the classroom because we recognize, as future attorneys, what we need is practical experience," she said.

The North Carolina Central University School of Law has the only other pro bono legal center in the UNC system, but officials said it likely wouldn't be affected by the proposal because it operates as a "clinic," providing credits toward graduation to students.

"What they would want to do if we did become a clinic is change the types of cases that we take," Haddix predicted.

The Board of Governors asked the chancellors at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central to assess how the proposal would affect their law schools in their core mission and report back to the board by July.

In the meantime, the UNC Law School Dean Martin Brinkley told the Center for Civil Rights not to take on any new cases until the board decides one way or the other on the proposal.

"My jaw dropped," Li said. "I feel like it’s just a block on what the Center for Civil Rights is doing. Who knows what kinds of civil rights violations will come up? Who knows what kinds of cases they might want to initiate before then?"